Into the Super-Verse: The death of the City of Heroes community

It's gone.

Kingdom Come is a 1996 DC Comics miniseries by Mark Waid and Alex Ross. The central conceit of the story is that it takes place after the familiar DC Comics heroes step away from their roles as superheroes due to an increased trend of ultra-violent heroes leads them to believe they no longer have a place in the world, and this is frequently framed as the central conflict in the story. But it isn’t; that conflict is resolved pretty early, leading to an older Justice League quickly returning to the world and laying down a new and more advanced form of order.

No, the central conflict is precisely that escalation. A good chunk of the Justice League decides that their role isn’t to just be heroes but judges, to lock up superhuman criminals under absolute watch and to make it clear that the new way of the world is with metahumans subject to a higher law. So it is that Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman come to blows, and Superman is in the right specifically because he notes that the other heroes have betrayed their ideals. The principle that they’re supposed to hold up is being violated.

This week was a Kingdom Come for the City of Heroes community. And it sucks.

There have been a lot of emotions swirling around the cat being out of the bag here. It turns out that City of Heroes did have a playable emulator, and it was running for years, and it was a complete secret accessible only to those who were deemed worthy of inclusion by the people already included. Just to add fuel to the fire, there’s speculation and accusations about the source code being stolen (we don’t know this for sure), about personal information being leaked (doesn’t seem to be true), and all of the denials you’d expect to be going hand-in-hand with that.

Here’s the thing. None of that actually matters in the immediate sense. I don’t mean that it’s not an issue if personal information was given without consent; that’s obviously a problem if true. No, it’s just that the betrayal already happened.

One of my first claims to fame in my career was being the City of Heroes guy on Massively; I wrote our A Mild-Mannered Reporter column back then. It’s not what I tend to be known for now, but it was how I met a lot of fans, how I started establishing myself, and one of the big parts of my earlier career writing about MMOs. At one of the first PAX East conventions I got to chat with War Witch about the art featured in my columns. I wrote an article slamming development decisions and got a handshake and “thank you” from the developers at New York Comic-con. I became a visible part of the community.

As such, a lot of the people personally implicated in this or implicated by association are people I know. Not intimately; we’re not talking about close personal friends, but these are not strangers. They’re parts of the community I considered trustworthy, at least until it became clear that we don’t actually have a community.

This is how we fall.

Yes, you read that right. You can’t keep something like this a secret for years and then pretend that you’re still one big dedicated community with the same goal in mind. You had portions of the community supporting projects to bring back something as close as possible… only to find out that something much closer to the real thing was already there and running.

You just weren’t cool enough to get brought into the fold. Or you didn’t have the right friends. “We are heroes” is not a rallying cry you can use with the caveat of “only some of you count as hero enough for the Special Hero Club.”

Obviously, given my points of contact and my place in the community, I’d heard rumors about the fact that there was an emulator. The people who told me about it were doing so back on Massively-that-was, and our mandate under AOL and Joystiq was to not cover emulators at all. My assumption was that that project had eventually turned into SEGS or Paragon Chat, or it was an open secret that everyone had just agreed not to speak about publicly. It seemed absurd to me that a community prized as a community would have major figures hiding something like that.

But no, that’s what happened. Cue people in the community far more important than I trying to get out ahead of things, claiming that it was a surprise to them as well or that the server operators are good guys and thus shouldn’t be held accountable for anything and so forth.

And you know what? I’d believe it. I would entirely believe that this was a good-faith effort undertaken in secret for fear of litigation, that the people involved in running it really are good folks with nothing but the best of intentions, and that the people generating the outcry are doing so due to personal vendettas.

Guess what? It no longer matters. Because the community for the game has been killed pretty effectively now that the schism is clear. Whatever the reasons for its existence, the existence is here and exposed.

This is the way we won't.

Communities are fragile things, especially when they’re centered around a game that is no longer publicly accessible. The one thing that’s held the CoH community together for this long is a sense of shared loss, the idea that we all still hold the same place for the game in our hearts and miss it equally. And part of that feeling of shared loss is, well… the loss. Sure, there are patches on the game, but there’s not the game itself.

Maybe the emulator didn’t really have the game running quite right. But that doesn’t matter now; what matters is the idea, planted so deep that it cannot be extricated, that some people were getting to just keep playing the game with nary a hitch. How do you share that feeling of loss when some people didn’t have the loss?

No one wins in this scenario. More likely than not, the server itself will get shut down now, as it’s hard to imagine NCsoft overlooking it now that it’s been made visible. The community members involved are going to become kind of toxic for the community, and at best we can hope that the fallout doesn’t splash over on to other projects. And as long as we’re hoping for things, let’s bring the McRib back year round.

The shutdown of the game itself couldn’t kill the community. But looking at this from here, this is a killer.

I’ve talked before about how I’ve spent a lifetime basically certain of the fact that whatever community I might seem to be a part of isn’t actually my community. In terms of personal hurt, the idea of “you could have been playing the whole time” doesn’t hit me very hard. I came to terms with this loss a long time ago and accepted it. Reluctantly, perhaps, but accepted it just the same.

But what does hurt me is twofold. It’s the fact that the community itself was exposed as not really as inclusive as we all thought. Yes, I can understand the reasons for keeping it secret, but I can also think of a few dozen ways to do that while still keeping the lines open to new people, none of which seem to have been pursued. And the obvious rejoinder of “having it invite-only means people you can trust are the only ones who know” is proven a lie because this happened with the whole thing being invite-only.

And that’s the other part. It’s not just that the people running it did something sleazy; it’s also that someone entrusted with the secret decided to ruin it for no reason other than sheer anarchic destruction. By all accounts, none of the more shocking allegations is even remotely true.

So now multiple things are destroyed at the bare minimum, and nothing is gained. And I just keep hearing Billy Batson calmly explaining to me that you guys don’t act like heroes any more.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Eliot Lefebvre and Justin Olivetti covering superhero MMORPGs, past, present, and future! Come along on patrol as Into the Super-verse avenges the night and saves the world… one column at a time.

Complete rundown on the entire City of Heroes SCORE mess. To be clear, we are not encouraging illegal activity and advise everyone involved to consider their actions carefully:

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